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After Love Exposure and Cold Fish, poet Shiono Sono completes his 'hate' trilogy with this tale of women torn apart by insatiable yearnings
On the eve of the 21st Century, in a rainswept back alley of Tokyo's Maruyama-cho Love Hotel district, a horrific discovery is made. Inside an abandoned apartment building, its walls spattered in pink paint and inscribed (in human blood) with the graffito 'castle', are two grotesque bodies, combining the parts of showroom dummies with the grisly off-cuts of a single female corpse whose head, limbs and sexual organs are missing.
As homicide detective Kazuko (Mizuno Miki) begins investigating, we might imagine that we are watching a gaudily neon-lit neo-noir - yet while writer-director Shiono Son's mystery certainly keeps us guessing both who done it and to whom, he is far more interested in anatomising the split identities and conflicted desires of his female characters, making Guilty of Romance more like an erotic thriller, with the odd deviation into melodrama.
Could the murder victim be Izumi (Kagurazaka Megumi), whose face we first see on a wall of missing persons notices at the police station? Flashbacks reveal that this prim young housewife is given over to serving the perfectionist needs of her husband, the romance novelist Yukio (Tsuda Kanji). Still, an undefined yearning for something more leads Izumi to play belle de jour, venturing surreptitiously into softcore pornshoots and promiscuous acts of infidelity. Eventually she meets Mitsuko (Togashi Makoto) who, though older and more advanced in her depravity, is divided and ruled by similar contradictions: by day a respected professor of English at an elite university, and by night an insatiable prostitute on a quest for an unattainable fulfilment that she terms 'castle' (after Kafka's novel). Under Mitsuko's tutelage, Izumi is soon sinking lower and lower on her ruinous path to licence and liberation - and we know that, one way or another, things are going to end very badly.
Following the four-hour epic of upskirt enlightenment Love Exposure and the 144-minute serial-killing psychodrama of Cold Fish, this last instalment of Sono's loose 'hate' trilogy is now also the shortest, having suffered its own dismemberment - for although screened at the Cannes Directors' Fornight in a 144-minute version, it has since had over half an hour of subplot concerning Kazuko's domestic and erotic life shorn from its duration. Owing however, to a structure based on repetition and variation, the film does, unlike its predecessors, still feel somewhat stretched, even if it shares their striking colour schemes, staid classical scoring, and extreme behaviours rooted in family dysfunction. All the women in Guilty of Romance lead double lives, juggling the plastic artifice of respectability with the demands of the flesh, and the film's one and only mother (Ohkata Hisako) proves every bit as unhinged as its many whores.
Produced by the Nikkatsu movie studio that was notorious in the 1970s for its line of 'Roman Pornos', Guilty of Romance openly advertises its status as a 'pink film' through the character Kaoru (Kobayashi Ryuju), an otherworldly young pimp with a predilection for splatting paint of that distinctive hue over characters and sets alike. Yet for all the film's softcore nudity and erotic obsessions, there remains an intense earnestness in the handling of these characters' passions, viewed as an irrational transgression that cuts through the patriarchal hypocrisies of Japanese society.
No two themes are more universal than love and death, yet by simultaneously lowering them to the gutter of Tokyo's sex industry, and elevating them to the literary frames of Kafka and Japanese poet Tamura Ryuichi (and the musical strains of Mahler), Sono uses seemingly incompatible materials to construct a patchwork film as grotesquely hybrid as the corpses at its centre. Guilty of Romance may be overlong and not a little bloated, but its sleaze both conceals and embodies moments of great sublimity.
A striking blend of the lurid and the lyrical, Sono's latest bedaubs its female characters' desires in a nation's legacy of aching emptiness and destructive madness.
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